Saturday, May 18, 2024

Professor Christy tells tale of two totalities

Andrew Christy and his group view the 2017 eclipse in its totality while set up in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in northwestern Wyoming.

 

By Andrew Christy

Assistant professor of psychology Andrew Christy wrote this guest essay from a first-person perspective to reflect on his experiences viewing two total solar eclipses. 

 

After the April 8 total eclipse darkened our skies, I can now say that I have witnessed two of these unique celestial events. 

Almost seven years earlier (though the memory feels fresher than that), some grad-school friends and I traveled from Texas to Wyoming to put ourselves in the path of the last “Great American Eclipse.” I’d like to reflect on these two experiences and the similarities and differences between them. 

 

2017: TEXAS TO WYOMING

The total eclipse in 2017 occurred August 21, which happens to be my birthday. I was in grad school at Texas A&M University at the time, between the fourth and fifth years of my PhD studies in social and personality psychology. 

College Station, Texas, was nowhere near the path of the eclipse. However, my close friend and classmate Anna suggested that we might travel to her home state of Wyoming, where the total eclipse would be passing through the northwest corner of the state. 

My summer calendar in 2017 was already pretty jam-packed. I would be helping my partner, McKay, move from Texas to Rochester, New York, in June, then attending back-to-back academic workshops in July in Chicago and Los Angeles, but the opportunity to see a total eclipse on my birthday was too special to pass up. I was motivated to claim a small piece of this busy summer “just for me” before my final year of grad school.

Anna and I drove the roughly 1,400 miles from College Station to the Bridger-Teton National Forest in northwestern Wyoming, picking up our friend Jane along the way and meeting up with Anna’s family. Her folks had a big camper, and we all pulled our vehicles out onto a big open field by the Green River and set up camp for the weekend. 

We arrived early and spent the days leading up to the eclipse exploring our scenic surroundings — on foot, by car and by river raft — and enjoying our quite luxurious campsite. Anna’s father-in-law made moose burgers one night, which both tasted good and made me feel like I was getting the genuine Wyoming experience.

Eclipse day came, and we simply walked up a low hill immediately adjacent to our campsite. We had seen more and more people arriving in the area over the preceding days, but there was plenty of space for everyone and no other groups were very close to us. This allowed us to spread out a bit within our group: Each of us set up a camp chair and we settled in to await the eclipse, sipping our morning coffee. 

The partial eclipse began shortly after 10 a.m., and through our eclipse glasses we watched the moon steadily cover up more and more of the sun’s face for the next hour and change. The quality of the sunlight didn’t change noticeably until the sun was almost completely obscured, at which point the light dimmed to a golden pre-sunset glow.

The total eclipse began at 11:36 a.m., when the moon blocked out the last tiny sliver of the sun’s face. Darkness fell, stars shone in the cloudless sky and it got chilly — my most vivid memory is of how quickly the temperature dropped. Each of us gazed rapturously up at the sun’s corona, an otherworldly ring of silvery light in the darkened sky. I don’t remember what anyone said, if indeed anyone said anything at all. 

The total eclipse lasted about two and a half minutes, but it felt longer than that. In that time, I experienced a complex set of physical and mental reactions: I felt giddy and thrilled with joy and excitement; chills ran down my spine. I was overwhelmed by the vast scale of what I was seeing and afraid at a primal level. 

Even though I knew intellectually that the sun would return, part of me was worried that it wouldn’t. Tears filled my eyes as I thought about how I was sharing an experience with untold numbers of people and other creatures — not only those viewing this eclipse, but all those who had ever seen an eclipse at any previous time in our planet’s history.

After the intense transcendence of the total eclipse passed, we were all in quite a state. We hugged, laughed and struggled to express what we were feeling (the word “wow” was used a lot). 

We continued to watch the partial eclipse until it concluded, though less attentively than we had watched its beginning. After that, it was time to pack up camp and begin our journey back to Texas, joining the long, slow-moving lines of cars exiting the National Forest. 

Car trouble required us to stay with Anna’s folks in Rock Springs, Wyoming, for a couple of extra days. Under ordinary circumstances this might have been a stressful inconvenience, but after the experience we had shared we were glad to have a reason to prolong the trip and delay our return to “normal life.”

 

2024: ADIRONDACK ADVENTURE

This time around, the solar eclipse came to me. 

McKay and I hosted several guests at our home in Plattsburgh, including Jane, who had been on the Wyoming trip with me. I had started planning for this eclipse quite a while beforehand, scouting out several possible viewing spots in the summer of 2023. 

If possible, I wanted to see it from a wilderness location again because that was part of what had made my previous experience so special. I also wanted to be on a mountain or other elevated viewpoint, in hopes of seeing the eclipse shadow approach and recede more fully than we had been able to in Wyoming. These considerations led me to select Catamount Mountain, about 40 miles southwest of Plattsburgh and close to the center of the total eclipse’s path.

This choice of destination did pose some challenges. Getting there would require traveling on the day of the eclipse, and I wasn’t sure how feasible that would be given the levels of traffic. 

Early April is also a strange season in the Adirondacks, with a mix of spring and winter conditions. The heavy snowfall the week before the eclipse made me question whether our group would be able to get up there, and even if we did, we would need to be prepared to keep ourselves warm and comfortable for several hours on an exposed mountainside. 

Our Plan B was to view the eclipse from a field across the street from our home in Plattsburgh. But after a final recon trip with a friend the Saturday before the eclipse, we decided we’d go for it Monday and make the best of it.

Overall, the plan worked out well. We didn’t hit any traffic on our way to the trailhead, and our entire group got up to the viewing spot we had selected by about 1 p.m., well before the partial eclipse began. 

That is not to say we had zero challenges. The conditions required us to start out in snowshoes, which we removed once we reached the steeper sections of the trail that feature some fairly difficult rock scrambles, but we all made it up, and the creature comforts we had hauled up in our heavy packs came in handy. 

We got quite comfortable on the open rock ledge with our pads and blankets and enjoyed a little picnic lunch as we waited for the eclipse to begin. We were not the only people who had the idea of going to Catamount — there were a couple of other groups up there when we arrived and more came up afterward.

I had anticipated this and selected Catamount in part because its abundance of open rock offered space to spread out. So while nobody else was right on top of us, we were closer to other groups than we had been in Wyoming, and our own group was clustered together more tightly.

This made for a bit more chattiness as the partial eclipse began and progressed. We had a lot of fun commenting on the changing shape of the obscured sun — from “Pac-Man” to “croissant” to “fat banana” to “regular banana” to “thumbnail.” The light began to change and it grew noticeably colder during the final 15 minutes before the total eclipse. As I had hoped, we could see the approaching total eclipse on the horizon to the southwest. It looked like an incoming storm or a patch of night’s shadow drawing ever closer.

When totality set in, the wind died down, which helped offset the further dip in temperature. For a second time, I saw the otherworldly silver ring of the sun’s corona. From our elevated vantage point, we could more clearly see parts of the so-called “360-degree sunset” that accompanies a total eclipse — warm orange-yellow light could be seen on every visible horizon. 

Again I felt that mix of exhilaration and fear and a degree of sadness or wistfulness, which was not unpleasant. McKay and I held each other’s hands tightly and pulled closer together. I was so happy to be sharing the experience with her this time around and it was delightful to see her excitement and wonder.

Being up on a mountain meant that we had to get ourselves out of there once the eclipse ended. The conditions made what is always a somewhat challenging descent even more difficult. The steep, rocky trail was full of slushy melting snow that made some parts a bit treacherous, but just as we had made it up, we all made it out safe and sound (though not without some grumbling and some less-than-graceful sliding on our butts).

 

Provided by Andrew Christy
Andrew Christy’s group views this year’s solar eclipse in totality from the top of Catamount Mountain in New York.

 

COMPARING, CONTRASTING

More than anything else, I feel deeply fortunate to have witnessed two total eclipses at this point in my life. These experiences have sharpened my love for nature and my understanding of the vast scale of our universe, in which our Earth floats like “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” to quote the astronomer Carl Sagan. 

These reminders of our world’s smallness can be scary, but recognizing that we and all that we hold dear are small, temporary and fragile parts of this inconceivably huge cosmos can also make us appreciate and cherish them more. 

I also find some comfort in the knowledge that most things in the universe do not depend on me. I may royally screw some things up in my own small life, but all of that cosmic clockwork will continue its elegant movements no matter how dramatic my failures. I think we can find a certain kind of acceptance in the universe’s indifference — the cosmos does not insist that we must be anything other than what we already are.

Both experiences also brought me closer to people, deepening my bonds with the friends and family I directly shared them with and making me feel more connected to all humanity — indeed, to all living things. From that perspective, the things that we share with each other as human beings and even as life-forms on Earth start to become more prominent than the things that divide and differentiate us. 

When we begin to understand the size of the universe, the differences in culture, ideology, and identity that loom so large in our everyday lives start to seem a bit trivial by comparison. We are all small parts of this larger cosmos, and we all share equally in the fate of our planet. I wouldn’t say the cosmic perspective completely erases or negates our differences, but it contextualizes them in a way that makes the gaps between us seem smaller and more possible to bridge.

Some of the main differences between my two eclipse experiences stemmed from my social role in each. In particular, I was more of a passenger “along for the ride” on the Wyoming trip, whereas I was playing host and doing much of the planning for the New York eclipse. This made the Wyoming eclipse a bit more carefree — I was able to go with the flow and didn’t have to work very hard to make anything happen. 

In contrast, there was a bit more stress involved in the New York eclipse: We had to make sure our guests were comfortable and I had some reservations about making everybody scramble up a difficult trail when we could have just stayed home and viewed the eclipse from here. My greater responsibility may have made it a bit harder for me to just be “in the moment” during the New York eclipse, and the need to hike in and out also made it a bit less leisurely than the Wyoming trip had been.

The closer proximity of other people during the New York eclipse also made it somewhat different from my Wyoming experience — in particular, it was less private and personal. I was not as alone with my own thoughts and feelings as I had been during the first eclipse. This didn’t make the New York eclipse worse, just different. While my inner experience may have been less intense as a result, it was also fun and rewarding to hear and see other people’s reactions (“Wow, look at the sky over there!”), particularly McKay’s. Certainly, sharing this second eclipse with my beloved was a special and unique aspect that had not been part of the Wyoming experience!

The fact that the New York eclipse was not my first, coupled with the greater degree of planning I had done for it, also meant that I had more expectations going into this second eclipse. These expectations were largely met or even exceeded, but it wasn’t the same as seeing a total eclipse for the first time. My experience in New York wasn’t quite as intense or transcendent as in Wyoming. However, one advantage to this is that I think I was able to encode clearer memories of what the eclipse was like in New York. 

In Wyoming, I was so overwhelmed by my inner experiences that I couldn’t clearly remember what the eclipse looked like. Because I wasn’t in as much emotional turmoil during the New York eclipse, I was able to focus my attention more fully on what I was seeing in the sky, and I think I will have more vivid memories as a result.

 

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS: AWE EVERY DAY

I have been lucky enough to experience two total solar eclipses in my life thus far, but I may never experience another. Total eclipses are rare events, and a good opportunity to view another one may not come my way again. In light of that, I would like to conclude with some thoughts about how we might approach similar experiences more routinely, while we’re waiting around for the next eclipse. 

I believe it is very possible for us to notice and engage more with nature and the cosmos in everyday life. Rare events like eclipses get a lot of hype and capture our attention, but celestial events and other natural phenomena that happen more regularly can still have some of the same effects. We can get in touch with some of the same things by observing and appreciating the sun’s daily rising and setting, the moon’s phases, the movement of water, the grandeur of mountains, the stillness of forests, the activities of birds and other animals, the day-to-day and seasonal changes in weather and any number of other events in nature that are occurring constantly all around us. Even people living in dense urban areas, where the human footprint is most obvious and “nature” may seem distant, can experience many of these things.

If we are always surrounded by potentially awe-inspiring natural phenomena, what stops us from appreciating them more often? As a social psychologist, I am inclined to view our culture as a major culprit: We are encouraged to devalue activities and experiences that are not “productive” in the narrow sense of economic productivity. We are trained to see the human world of work, money and politics as “the real world” and forget that this is actually a world of our making that is embedded in the larger reality of nature. 

Engaging with nature requires some degree of resistance to prevailing cultural worldviews and practices. We have to insist that wandering in the forest, watching the river flow by and gazing at the stars are legitimate and worthwhile activities, and we have to devote some of our all-too-limited free time to seeking these experiences. Opportunities to do this are not equally or justly distributed in our society, but my own experience leads me to believe it is well worth the effort to take whatever chances are available to each of us to engage with nature, and remind ourselves of the larger universe that always surrounds us and on which we depend.

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